Got Milk: after failing to steal Spotify’s thunder, Samsung aims for Pandora

Samsung launched a new free music app for users of its smart phones Friday that aims to take on Pandora(s P) with a free and ad-free radio streaming experience and a unique interface that takes some design cues from terrestrial radio. It’s the company’s second major foray into music services, and it could signal a shift in direction.

Milk, as the new app is called, offers access to some 200 genre-based stations, as well as the ability to launch custom stations based on artists or songs, just like Pandora. The app’s user interface is however very different from Pandora’s fairly straightforward music player. At the center of the Milk experience is a virtual dial that can be used to quickly scan through stations that are arranged by genre.

At the center of the Milk app is a dial that lets users skip through and browse for stations.

At the center of the Milk app is a dial that lets users skip through and browse for stations.

As the users scans through these stations, Milk actually plays the beginning of each song, making it sound a bit like skipping through the signals of terrestrial radio, minus the white noise and ear-wrecking interferences. It’s a fun experience that’s being made possible by Milk caching 8 seconds of the first song of each and every station, explained Samsung Mobile Services Director Chris Martinez during a briefing with journalists in San Francisco Thursday.

Milk will be made freely available to U.S. users of Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 as well as Galaxy Note devices through the Google Play store starting Friday. The service is ad-free for now, but Martinez and Samsung Media Solutions Senior Marketing Director Aline Yu said Thursday that the company may evaluate whether to add advertising, or possibly offer a freemium model, in the future. One possible value proposition for a freemium offering would be streaming quality. Currently, users can chose to stream with either 50 kbps  or 96 kbps, but audiophiles may be willing to pay for higher bit rates.

Milk’s music streams and its recommendation engine is powered by Slacker, but the service will also offer access to Samsung-exclusive content from select artists in the future, according to Yu. Just like Pandora, Milk is DMCA-compliant, which means that you can only skip up to six times in an hour per station. The same licensing regulations also limit the number of songs played by the same artist, which is why a Beatles station might quickly switch to Cosby Stills Young and Nash, followed by some more recent Paul Simon recordings.

A fun interface, but no social sharing

I had a chance to play a bit with an early release of the app Thursday, and have to say that I actually enjoyed the user interface. The dial is a fun way to switch between stations, and the nod to old-fashioned radio is charming. Of course, that novelty factor could eventually wear off, but the radio experience is still pretty solid.

Milk stations are DMCA-compliant, so you won't hear just one artist -- but you can finetune the results.

Milk stations are DMCA-compliant, so you won’t hear just one artist — but you can finetune the results.

Sadly, Milk doesn’t really offer any additional information about the music it’s playing, which makes it a pretty bad music discovery app. Also missing is any social sharing, but Martinez said that this is one of the features under consideration for future releases.

The fact that Milk doesn’t have any ads is pretty neat, but listeners occasionally get to hear a “station ID” jingle, which is essentially a really short plug for the service itself. Yu told me that this very brief jingle may show up in a user’s stream two to three times per hour.

Is Samsung better off with Milk?

There’s something else that’s interesting about Milk: It’s not the only music service offered by Samsung. The company is also running a Spotify-like subscription offering that is being sold for $10 a month. That service, which is offered through the Samsung Hub app, is based on a service run by mSpot, a company Samsung acquired in May of 2012. Samsung has never said how many users its subscription music service has, but there is no evidence that it has gotten a whole lot of traction in a market that’s dominated by Spotify and that has proven challenging even for long-running competitors like Rhapsody and Rdio.

Milk Music - with Dial - Jay Z

At the briefing in San Francisco, it seemed like Samsung is much less bullish about subscription music these days. “We think we are better off looking at radio as a democratized service,” said Martinez, adding that the target market of users who access radio is much larger than that of subscription music services, whose total customer base across all services he pegged at under 10 million. Samsung’s goal was to be where “millions and millions” of users are, he added.

I quizzed Martinez about the fate of Samsung’s music subscription offering after the briefing, and interestingly enough, he declined to say whether it will still be around in the future. “It’s around now,” he said instead.

It is indeed, but given the difficulties other services have had in this space, one has to wonder for how much longer.